Song of the Day, January 12: The Night You Can’t Remember by the Magnetic Fields

Magnetic69NightToday’s song tells a tale of drunken passion and its aftermath. The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is band leader Stephin Merritt’s sprawling masterpiece, a glorious set of songs about love songs. Toward the end of the set we encounter The Night You Can’t Remember. Merritt assumes the voice of a woman who had a one-night stand with a soldier. Their drunken frolic left him blacked out and her pregnant, resulting in

The night you can’t remember…the night I can’t forget.

Sung with smart wordplay in Merritt’s lilting deadpan over a bed of distorted ukulele, it’s a classic Magnetic Fields moment. Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, December 31: Plant White Roses by Kelly Hogan

HoganMerrittRosesToday’s song is an inspired cover from Kelly Hogan’s I Like to Keep Myself In Pain. Stephin Merritt wrote Plant White Roses for his first Magnetic Fields album, Distant Plastic Trees. It was cut from later releases of the disc, becoming one of his famous “obscurities”. When Hogan began assembling material for her 2012 album, she asked her talented friends for contributions. Merritt offered her his roses.

It’s a song of yearning — “plant white roses and plan to cry” — a sort of urban country punk. With Hogan’s amazing voice giving it a barely restrained delivery it becomes a quirky torch song. Somehow it seems as though Merritt wrote it just for her, a tribute both to his writing and her singing.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, June 10: I Thought You Were My Boyfriend by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldiBoyfriendToday’s song is I Thought You Were My Boyfriend by the Magnetic Fields. After Stephin Merritt and company released the magnum opus 69 Love Songs, Merritt spent half a decade on other projects. When he reconvened the Magnetic Fields, he launched a trio of synth-free albums. The first was a collection of songs loosely connected by their first letter, “I”. This is the standout track, a catalog of romantic betrayals delivered with trademark wit in Merritt’s wistful near deadpan. It’s a fun romp of restrained emotion and tragic exhaustion.

Enjoy this wry track today.

Song of the Day, March 16: Grand Canyon by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldGrandCToday’s song is Grand Canyon from 69 Love Songs, Stephin Merritt’s cycle of songs about love songs. Recorded with his band the Magnetic Fields, it’s his finest outing and this wistful track is a standout. Merritt sings about a lost love, trying to reassure the object of his affections that they are enduring. He crafts a strangely whimsical proposition and sings it so earnestly that it works.

If I was the Grand Canyon, I’d echo everything you say
But I’m just me, I’m only me and you used to love me that way
So you know how to love me that way

Clocking in at under two-and-a-half minutes, the song sticks around just long enough to make its sad point, working like the perfect love songs Merritt celebrates throughout the album.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, January 7: Absolutely Cuckoo by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldsCuckooToday’s song is the introduction to the Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus, 69 Love Songs. Nothing could quite prepare the listener for the amazing three-disc journey of that album, but this brief, charming romp is a great way to start. In just over 90 seconds, vocalist, band leader and songwriter Stephin Merritt riffs on his own insecurities at breakneck speed.

In his best wounded deadpan, accompanied by a tinkly ukulele, Merritt makes a strong case for not falling in love, especially with him. The delivery is so wittily artless, however, that it’s hard not to sympathize with this neurotic mess. The result is a great welcome to an album all about love songs, subverting the form within the first few bars.

I’m easy to get rid of
But not if you fall in love
Know now that I’m on the make
And if you make a mistake
My heart will certainly break
I’ll have to jump in a lake
And all my friends will blame you
There’s no telling what they’ll do
It’s only fair to tell you
I’m absolutely cuckoo

Enjoy this classic Merritt moment today.

Song of the Day, November 4: He Didn’t by the 6ths

Mould6thsA key part of Stephin Merritt’s musical genius is the unexpected juxtaposition. His work with the Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes is filled with wordplay, gender bending, unexpected juxtapositions, and witty asides. For his superstar project the 6ths, however, he takes things one step further. Working with a dizzying array of pop and indie singers, he matches his words to the voices he wants to hear sing them. Sometimes the pairing is straightforward (Barbara Manning is perfect for San Diego Zoo), but something delightful happens with the less obvious.

Case in point, today’s song. Bob Mould is known for his blistering guitar work as a member of Hüsker Dü and the sonic power of his solo work. Merritt gave him a very tender, fragile ballad — and it works. Mould has explored a more delicate side before, but always within the scope of his personal vision. He Didn’t is a gorgeous, brittle song of hope and need, with the narrator wishing that the man of his dreams would just dance with him. Propelled by Mould’s vulnerable vocal and Merritt’s sweet piano line, the track is quiet waves of hope — eventually dashed against the title, which tells the final story.

It’s one of Merritt’s sweeter (if dark) songs; what truly makes it work is Mould’s inherent sincerity. Enjoy this lovely pairing today.

Album of the Week, September 21: 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields

MagneticFieldsThe-69LoveSongsStephin Merritt has never lacked musical ambition. Born and raised near Boston, he had a high school band called the Zinnias with friend and drummer Claudian Gonson. For a studio project, he created Buffalo Rome (also with Gonson), which evolved into the Magnetic Fields. Dissatisfied with his own voice, Merritt eventually recruited Susan Anway to sing his songs. With Merritt playing almost everything, this duo recorded two solid albums in the early 90s, featuring her haunting vocals over diverse musical soundscapes mostly played on intentionally cheap synths. A sort of wall-of-lo-fi electro-pop, the discs bristled with Merritt’s stunning wordplay and clear sense of musical styles and history. Gonson and cellist Sam Davol appear on both discs. Anway moved away and Merritt recorded his own vocals on the thematic Charm of the Highway Strip. While his quirky baritone was quite different from Anway’s vocals, it served the material well. After two more albums, the Magnetic Fields were really a band: Merritt, Gonson, Davol and guitarist John Woo. For his first project with the formalized group, Merritt decided to do something big.

Title 69 Love Songs
Act The Magnetic Fields
Label Merge Producer Stephin Merritt
Release September 7, 1999 U.S. Chart n/c U.K. Chart n/c
Tracks Disc One Disc Two Disc Three
  1. Absolutely Cuckoo
  2. I Don’t Believe In the Sun
  3. All My Little Words
  4. A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
  5. Reno Dakota
  6. I Don’t Want to Get Over You
  7. Come Back From San Francisco
  8. The Luckiest Guy On the Lower East Side
  9. Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits
  10. The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be
  11. I Think I Need A New Heart
  12. The Book of Love
  13. Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long
  14. How Fucking Romantic
  15. The One You Really Love
  16. Punk Love
  17. Parades Go By
  18. Boa Constrictor
  19. A Pretty Girl Is Like…
  20. My Sentimental Melody
  21. Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing
  22. Sweet-Lovin’ Man
  23. The Things We Did and Didn’t Do
  1. Roses
  2. Love Is Like Jazz
  3. When My Boy Walks Down the Street
  4. Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old
  5. Very Funny
  6. Grand Canyon
  7. No One Will Ever Love You
  8. If You Don’t Cry
  9. You’re My Only Home
  10. (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy
  11. My Only Friend
  12. Promises of Eternity
  13. World Love
  14. Washington, D.C.
  15. Long-Forgotten Fairytale
  16. Kiss Me Like You Mean It
  17. Papa Was A Rodeo
  18. Epitaph For My Heart
  19. Asleep and Dreaming
  20. The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing
  21. The Way You Say Good-Night
  22. Abigail, Belle of Kilronan
  23. I Shatter
  1. Underwear
  2. It’s A Crime
  3. Busby Berkeley Dreams
  4. I’m Sorry I Love You
  5. Acoustic Guitar
  6. The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure
  7. Love In the Shadows
  8. Bitter Tears
  9. Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget
  10. Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
  11. Experimental Music Love
  12. Meaningless
  13. Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin
  14. Queen of the Savages
  15. Blue You
  16. I Can’t Touch You Anymore
  17. Two Kinds of People
  18. How to Say Goodbye
  19. The Night You Can’t Remember
  20. For We Are the King of the Boudoir
  21. Strange Eyes
  22. Xylophone Track
  23. Zebra

Initially planned as a set of 100 songs that could be performed as a revue with varying vocalists, Merritt scaled the project back just a bit. Settling on 69 songs, he brought in some additional help and recorded his masterpiece. Perhaps the best introduction to this epic masterpiece is a quote from the author:

69 Love Songs is not remotely an album about love. It’s an album about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.

That’s a perfect analysis. Merritt has always reveled in dissecting, imploding, and subverting familiar musical forms and tropes. Romping through a whole batch of them, loosely joined by the love song theme, shows off the breadth of his talent and the fun that can be had with a great musical idea. The songs range from Abigail, Belle of Kilronan to Zebra (strangely missing only a “J” song to have a complete alphabet) and from 29 seconds to just over five minutes in length. Merritt provides 45 lead vocals plus two duets, one with Gonson and another with the charming Shirley Simms (who would later become an offical band member). Longtime friend and collaborator ld beghtol and irony champion Dudley Klute (who also perform with Merritt as the Three Terrors) each pitch in leads for six tracks, as do Gonson and Simms. This diversity of vocal talent lets Merritt really match the song to the singer, often in subversive and unexpected ways.

A track-by-track analysis (like I usually provide for Albums of the Week) would be too exhausting for both writer and reader. Suffice it to say that while there is a bit of inevitable filler (note the tracks that mention specific musical forms), the whole project is amazingly consistent and cohesive. Any set that includes a spot-on trad-folk parody (Wi’ Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget), a darkly haunting kiss-off (No One Will Ever Love You), a sprightly murder ballad about a famous linguist (The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure), and an ABBA-worthy pop epic (Sweet-Lovin’ Man) is worth the time and effort. That analysis barely scratches the surface. (I’ve written up Songs of the Day for most of my favorites, available through the links in the track list above.)

It’s easy to label an album like this sprawling, epic, massive, or daunting. All of those terms apply to some extent. More importantly, however, it’s visionary, smart, clever, fun, compelling, and satisfying. Expertly sequenced, lovingly played, and dizzyingly diverse, 69 Love Songs is like nothing else. It’s also magnificent. The three discs are available separately, but not owning the whole set is simply a crime. (There’s a box set version which features an extended conversation about the songs between Merritt and longtime friend Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks.) Merritt manages to be ringmaster, Svengali, and bandleader while still being very much a part of a larger whole. Anyone who appreciates smart writing, music with a sense of history AND fun, and a group of players at their best should invest in this wonderful set.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to keep track of Stephin Merritt’s musical projects. Besides his ten discs as leader of the Magnetic Fields, he has four other musical identities with recordings available. As the 6ths, he’s recorded two albums with a wide array of vocalists from all over the indie music world, each singing one track. That “group’s” Wasp’s Nests is a masterpiece of a very different flavor but almost as compelling as 69 Love Songs. With Gonson and keyboardist Christopher Ewen, he is part of the much more democratic electro-pop group Future Bible Heroes. Their material is a lot of fun and features some smart playing. The best of their albums is Eternal Youth. The aptly named Gothic Archies are another side project, with smaller output; it’s good stuff, but not as compelling. Merritt also records under his own name, especially for soundtrack work.

Of the Magnetic Fields albums, three others stand out. Distant Plastic Trees, the debut with Anway, is less fully-formed and features some weaker experiments, but it also includes some of Merritt’s most beautiful melodies. The cheap-synth folk feel is uniquely compelling. The Charm of the Highway Strip is a strong concept disc with an almost alt-country feel. i, the first in his no-synths trilogy, is the strongest of the post-69 material. All of the albums are worthwhile (with the overlong Get Lost and the overwrought concept of Distortion coming closest to real stumbles) and fans of Merritt’s distinctive musical vision can find real gems on every one.

Song of the Day, August 26: Always Already Gone by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldsRealismGoneToday’s song is Always Already Gone by the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merritt and company had a busy decade in the 90s, releasing six albums and one EP with nearly 200 songs. Things slowed down in the next decade as Merritt worked on a number of other projects. That period’s three Magnetic Fields’ discs — i, Distortion, and Realism — share the common theme of no synthesizers. The latter two are a paired set, with Distortion featuring lots of electric guitar and treated sound and Realism serving as what Merritt calls “my folk album.”

The lovely disc has only one song with any electric instruments. The rest showcase Merritt’s distinctive lyrical vision and musical instincts in strictly acoustic settings. The band make the most of the songs, showing off their chops with no enhancements or embroidery. Frequent guest vocalist Shirley Simms provides lead on several tracks, including this standout. Always Already Gone features typical, brilliant Merritt wordplay against a deceptively simple, sad backdrop. Simms turns in one of her best vocals, aching quietly through the loss.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, June 17: Losing Your Affection by Future Bible Heroes

FutureBibleHeroesToday’s song is Losing Your Affection by Future Bible Heroes. Songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt features in many bands, most notably his brainchild, the Magnetic Fields. Future Bible Heroes is a the most collaborative eneterprise. Featuring vocalist/pianist/drummer Claudia Gonson — also a regular in the Magnetic Fields — and keyboardist/writer Chris Ewen — late of Figures On A Beach — the trio mine synth-flavored disco tunes with the kind of off-kilter lyrics for which Merritt is known. He and Ewen co-write the bulk of the songs while he and Gonson share or trade lead vocals depending on the track.

Taken from their quirky, charming second album, Eternal Youth, this song is one of their finest moments. Fundamentally a love song, the lyrics feature trademark irony and surprise imagery. Gonson, long accustomed to providing the perfect delivery for Merritt’s excursions, gives a passionate but off-hand performance that works flawlessly when rhyming “affection” with “vivisection.” Ewen’s layered, elegant synth work gives the whole package a textured majesty that wraps it up in a danceable ribbon.

But I’d rather be the queen at the guillotine
In a bloody insurrection
I would rather be king when the rooks take wing
Than be losing your affection

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, April 10: I Shatter by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldsShatterToday’s song is I Shatter by the Magnetic Fields. It’s one of the most successful experimental tracks on Stephin Merritt’s masterpiece, 69 Love Songs.

The song features a harrowing cello bit performed by long-time band member Sam Davol. He’s an interesting character, as are most of the Fields’ performers. A former legal aid attorney and part-time non-profit manager, he got involved with Merritt and the music bug bit hard. He quit his day job to dedicate more time to performing and touring with the band. His cello adds rich textures to Merritt’s often minimalist and quirky songscapes.

Blended with the sawing is a heavily processed vocal by Merritt, dropped shockingly lower than his usual baritone. Speak-singing the main lyrics, he accompanies himself with asides in his highest normal register. The combination works extremely well, with super-bass Merritt narrating a tale of failed love while regular Merritt provides insights like a shoulder angel. Spooky and compelling, it all hangs on one clever, potent observation:

Some fall in love — I shatter.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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